During the Middle Ages women continued to use natural medicines and holistic care for the wellbeing of their families and pregnant women, while men attended university to become physicians, which then started the restrictions on natural healers who were considered “witches” if they were performing healing without formal accreditation.
The Church declared that anyone using witchcraft would create harm through their sorcery. It wasn’t long before “witch hunts” were conducted, usually with male physicians “diagnosing” if a woman was a witch and it is estimated that millions of women (and men) were tortured and executed. This enabled the male physicians to exert their superiority in the medical world.
The Wise Woman lost the art of natural medicine, yet midwives still maintained control of childbearing as this was not considered a part of medicine. Midwives and “gossips” continued to support women through childbirth. Gossips would be considered what we know as doulas today providing emotional and physical support to the mother while preparing the house for the arrival of the newborn. Gossips then continued to visit the mother during her postpartum period and provided help with chores, cooking and childcare.
The female cycles were also very well understood and celebrated, particularly the lunar cycle. There are 13 new moons in a solar year and women have 13 menstrual cycles in a year. There are also 13 days in the lunar cycle from new moon to full moon and 13 days in the menstrual cycle from bleed to ovulation. Pregnancies last 10 lunar months and counting the number of moon cycles provides an estimation of when birth is likely to occur.
However, male physicians felt hostility towards midwives and gossips because they were still seen as the experts in childbirth and would be gathered behind closed doors for long periods of time – and because they didn’t know what was being done or discussed this made them very uneasy and suspicious.
It was during the sixteenth century that men started to look at childbirth as a “mechanical practice” and men felt they were more knowledgeable in the mechanics of the human body. With industrialisation came changes in maternity care, and hospitals were set up and poor women were provided with “free” care so that obstetrical training could be provided for doctors and nurses. These hospitals were unsanitary, and doctors spread bacteria from sick or dead patients to birthing women so death due to infection was incredibly high, until antibiotics were discovered.
We started seeing more mechanical and medicalised birth.
There was even a patent that was lodged in 1965 by an American couple George and Charlotte Blonsky for an “Apparatus for facilitating the birth of a child by centrifugal force.”
Here is a copy of the patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
This contraption worked by strapping the naked mother onto the frame that spun around at high speed so it would create enough force to help the baby shoot out of the vagina into a carefully placed net.
However, there is no evidence that this fine piece of birthing machinery was ever used in childbirth.
Did you know that the chainsaw was originally a device designed by two Scottish surgeons named John Aitken and James Jeffray in 1780 to cut through bone and flesh during childbirth emergencies as they found knives just weren’t cutting it anymore (sorry couldn’t help myself with that little pun)?
Originally a small knife and a saw was used to remove the bone – all without anaesthesia – imagine how horrific that must have been for the woman giving birth.
Lucky for us women, these two surgeons designed and built the chainsaw, which made it a much faster, easier, and cleaner procedure.
This procedure was known as “symphysiotomy” and as you can imagine, wasn’t a very pleasant experience for women or babies.
When babies were presenting in breech or they suspected shoulder dystocia or the baby simply was not moving down the birth canal, they would use this device, powered by a hand crank to cut through the pelvis, cartilage, and bone, to create more space for the baby and this was believed to be a more humane way of helping the woman.
It worked so well, that the device then went on to be used for other bone cutting surgeries and amputations.
Thank goodness the use of this device has now shifted to the garden, rather than the birth suite.
More recently we now have a device in the study phase, which was invented in 2006 by a car mechanic Jorge Odon after he watched a YouTube video showing an easy way to pull out a cork from a wine bottle, and that gave him a light bulb moment of “hey this could help women giving birth.”
The idea was to fold a plastic sleeve around the baby’s head, while pumping air between the two layers of plastic, and then sucking the baby out.
This device was endorsed by the World Health Organisation, and clinical studies were started with 49 women in the testing group.
Out of those women, 59% of them experienced some level of genital trauma so the study was stopped.
In 2013 a global medical company called Becton Dickinson (BD) acquired the license and made design improvements. It then completed simulation and human factor studies to take them to the next level to manufacture the device and in 2017 a randomized pivotal clinical testing trial began.
It is not currently on the market for sale but watch this space.
And let’s not forget the “machine that goes ping” to really make sure that women know where their place is in the birthing space.
What this means is replacing real and dedicated continuity of care, touch, conversations, connections and experts in normal physiological birth with numbers, machines, computer screens and charts that lead to interventions and caesareans. This is why it is so important for women and their partners to do independent childbirth education classes, because our maternity system today is still dominated by the patriarchy.
The gold standard for maternity care in low risk pregnancies is still with a dedicated midwife and midwifery-led team.
And the usual disclaimer so as not to offend…
Yes we all know that Obstetricians save lives.
We know that in some cases interventions and caesareans are needed in high risk pregnancies or if things deviate from “normal” and I teach this in my classes to ensure that women understand it is not about having a natural birth at all cost, but it is about them feeling confident in asking questions and feeling safe. We are really fortunate to have Obstetricians who are highly skilled surgeons who perform caesareans to save lives – that is their zone of genius. I have been privileged to work with some amazing Obstetricians who have encouraged and respected the woman and her wants and needs and only intervene if a birth truly needs medical assistance. They continue to treat women with the utmost respect and courtesy even if the woman declines routine interventions such as inductions, unlike some Obstetricians I’ve also seen who have been demanding and intimidating towards women creating trauma and fear and having no regard for the AMA Position Statement on Maternal Decision Making that say they must respect a woman’s right to choose.
As Specialist Obstetrician Dr Kirsten Small says…“the system is bigger than any one individual.”
But as consumers and birth workers we still have a responsibility to the current and next generations to call out poor maternity care and ensure that women know their rights when it comes to their body, their baby and their birth.
My name is Vicki Hobbs and I am a Childbirth Educator (Back to Basics Birthing), Hypnobirthing Australia Practitioner, Certified VBAC Educator, Remedial Massage Therapist specialising in Pregnancy & Postpartum Massage, Birth & Postpartum Doula, Certified Placenta Encapsulator, Hypnotherapist, Aromatherapist, Reiki Practitioner and Life Coach. I am a serial workshopper and learner, so that I keep up to date with new research and information so that I can provide you with up to date resources. My focus has always been on the mind, the body and the emotions and how they all need to be in balance for harmony. You can subscribe to my newsletter by adding your details in the box on the right-hand side and when you do I will send you a free relaxation meditation to help you feel calm and relaxed. I am based in the northern suburbs of Perth and can be contacted by email at [email protected] or click here to go back to my Resources Page for more interesting articles, information and birth stories.